Prophecy is an important part of the message of God as understood in the Scriptures. Unfortunately, the nature of prophecy is often quite misunderstood. Many think that prophecy always involves things that will happen in the future. When the word prophecy is mentioned, many start thinking maybe of Elijah or Isaiah, perhaps the Revelation to John, or even people like Nostradamus or Edgar Cayce. What, then, is prophecy? Who spoke them? What were the messages spoken through prophecy?
Prophecy, in its basic meaning, involves a foretelling, prediction, a declaration of something to come, according to Websterâ€™s dictionary.
In the Bible, however, prophecy is the message of God through the Holy Spirit as communicated by a prophet or some other person whom God chose. That message, many times, does involve the future, either in terms of future consequences that will arise on account of the sin of the people, or the future promise that God has in store through Christ and His Kingdom. Yet the message can just as easily involve current events and condemnation of present sinfulness. Prophecy, therefore, does not always involve the future!
The Bible demonstrates that God normally speaks through prophets. There are examples of others who prophesy by Godâ€™s power but, in general, the prophetic message was spoken through men whom God chose. Many such men were called directly by God, although there does seem to be a class of prophets, at least during the days of Elijah and Elisha.
These men were called from all sorts of backgrounds, everything from shepherds to priests. All that was required of them was to present the message of God through the Holy Spirit to the people.
In the Old Testament, the message of the prophets was rather consistent, as Zechariah indicates.
All the prophets from Moses to Zechariah warned the people to cease from sin and follow God according to the Law. Many of the prophets would go on to inform Israel of the consequences of their continued sin. This usually involved the prediction of great destruction and devastation, both from natural forces like pestilence and famine and from invading armies of men. The defeat and exile of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians and the defeat and exile of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians validated all of these warnings of the prophets.
Many of the Old Testament prophets also did speak of the glory that God would bring back to His people after His judgments. These prophecies involved the upcoming Messiah and the Kingdom that would be established. These are the classic predictive or Messianic, prophecies concerning which many are familiar.
While prophecy ceased from Israel between Malachi and the days of Jesusâ€™ birth, the New Testament also features many prophets. These prophets were believers given the gift of prophecy by God . Some such prophecies involve messages regarding future events, including Agabusâ€™ messages, along with Godâ€™s revelation to John. Much of the work of the New Testament prophets, however, involved encouraging the brethren. In the days before the written New Testament, the prophets played the vital role of communicating Godâ€™s message to the believers, strengthening them in their faith and exhorting them to follow Godâ€™s purposes for their lives.
Prophecy, therefore, certainly involves the prediction of future events, but fundamentally involves the message of God delivered to man. If we will properly understand Godâ€™s prophetic word, we must understand to whom the prophecy was first spoken, whether it involves only the immediate audience or also people in the future, and the referent of predictive prophecies. If our interpretation of a prophecy makes no sense in light of the original audience of the message, which is a clear warning that our interpretation may not be accurate. If we take heed to this, we will do better at escaping the tyranny of the present, presuming that all prophecy actually involves our own day.